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More moral by playing together?

27. August 2019

How does the playing behaviour of children influence their prosocial behaviour? This is the question scientists at the Leipzig Research Centre for Early Childhood Development (LFE) at the University of Leipzig and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have researched. It turned out that cooperative games encouraged the willingness to share with other children. The researchers have now published their new findings in the specialist journal “PLoS ONE”.

Building Lego towers together, playing against each other or simply playing on your own: Children play almost the entire day in a variety of ways. The LFE’s new study investigated in more detail how these forms of playing affect children’s behavior. Does it affect children when they play with or against each other? Some studies already suggest that cooperative play promotes prosocial behaviour in children. They share more with their peers and help each other more often. These results, however, have so far always referred only to the play partner. The current study by the Leipzig researchers now also takes into account the actions towards third, uninvolved children. Are there any differences between the game contexts?

For the first time, a new game called “KoKo” was developed. The special thing about KoKo is that it can be played against each other, with each other and alone. The reason was, that the game situations could be better compared, as LFE doctorand Theo Toppe describes: “So far there has been no study that has investigated all these three ways of playing. With this study, we wanted to find out what is behind the effects of previous undercuts. Of course, the game had to be easy to understand and fun for children”. That’s why a new game was developed in collaboration with game designer Sabrina Sgoda. Children can balance marbles in a box. The players sit opposite each other and try to move the box by pulling strings so that the ball rolls in the right direction. And it was well received: “The children understood it quickly and had a lot of fun playing together. Many parents asked whether they could take the game home with them or where they could buy it,” said Toppe, who now works at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

For the sample, 96 children aged four to six were selected. At this age, children already have an understanding of the three different forms of play. After two children had played either alone, with each other or against each other, the scientists observed how they behaved. Three aspects were taken into account: Firstly, after playing, the children could share some stickers with another child who had not played. It was also observed how children behave in a puppet show by involving someone else in a ball game. In the end, the two children who had previously played KoKo were observed in free play. Even while the children were playing KoKo, very interesting behaviors were evident: “When the children were playing our game alone, they sometimes compared each other and created a competition, even though we didn’t want to. I found this interesting because it shows that children in Germany are very used to playing games against each other,” explains Toppe.

After cooperative games, the children were more willing to share with another child they didn’t know. The results therefore support the assumption that the way children play can influence their prosocial behaviour and thus be an important basis for their moral development. These findings can provide important information for educational science. Toppe says: “The knowledge of these particular effects can help us to develop new games that promote the openness and kindness of children”. However, these results are not transferable to inclusion readiness. “Cooperative games are therefore not a blanket solution – they have very specific effects,” explains the expert.

All over the world, games in different cultures are played in very different ways. The results of this study could therefore not simply be generalized, emphasizes Toppe. In order to learn more about the influence of games on child development, it is important to conduct the study as a continuation of the project in other cultures.

Communication on the website of the University of Leipzig: https://www.uni-leipzig.de/newsdetail/artikel/moralischer-durch-gemeinsames-spielen-2019-08-27/

Picture: Selma Kalhorn

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